WASHINGTON — It was the journalistic equivalent of a layup, an opportunity for President Donald Trump to utter a sound bite to soothe an anxious nation’s fears and concerns amid a pandemic.
Instead, Trump turned an exchange at a news conference into something very different — a jarring attack on the news media in general and the reporter who asked the question in particular.
NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander started the exchange by asking Trump whether he “may be giving Americas a false sense of hope” by touting drug therapies that health-care experts have said are unproved as treatments for the coronavirus.
“No, I don’t think so,” Trump replied. “It may work, it may not work … I feel good about. That’s all it is, it’s a feeling.”
Alexander shifted gears by citing the growing toll of the illness and asking Trump, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now and are scared?”
Rather than offering reassurance, Trump went after Alexander and his employer.
“I’d say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I’d say,” he said.
Trump briefly gestured to another reporter to ask a question but decided to turn back to Alexander instead.
“I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people,” he said, pointing accusatorily at Alexander. “The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism. And the same with NBC and Concast — I don’t call it Comcast, I call it Concast.”
He went on for several more moments in this vein, his voice rising steadily before concluding, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The exchange, which immediately lit up social media, was a jarring moment as the nation grapples with uncertainty and the president attempts to marshal the federal government’s response.
Most read the president’s heated response strictly as a reaction to the Americans-are-scared question, though Alexander’s challenge to Trump’s overselling of drug therapies might have also provoked his anger. The rest of his response suggested he was still angry about being challenged about his “positive spin” about would-be cures. “Let’s see if works,” he said. “It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it but who knows. I’ve been right a lot.”
In any case, it was a classic Trump reaction, if among the more ill-timed. Faced with what he perceives to be criticism, Trump often goes on offense, firing back at his perceived critic. That his supposed adversary in this case was a reporter was convenient, given that it provided a familiar frame for Trump, who rarely misses an opportunity to dismiss reporting he doesn’t like as “fake news” and mainstream news organizations as the “enemy of the people.”
Trump said on Monday that “a lot of the media actually has been very fair,” but he has faced tough questions since then about the availability of medical equipment and about his own characterization of the crisis all week.
Many commentators, including Alexander, suggested his response reflected his frustration or was an attempt to distract from the administration’s belated response to the virus.
Journalists rushed to condemn Trump’s attack on a colleague; perhaps the strongest response came from CNN anchor John King who spoke out on air to call Trump’s answer “a bull—- attack” shortly after the briefing concluded. “That was a 100 percent legitimate question, with no hype, no shade, no bias. [Trump] just wanted to attack,” said King.
For the record, Alexander’s question was hardly “sensationalism” but a fairly accurate accounting of the virus’ toll thus far. He may, in fact, have understated the steadily rising number of those infected and killed by it. And it was fairly standard: Presidents are often asked by reporters and others to offer reassurance or consolation to the public in times of national crisis.
The White House did not return a call for comment on Trump’s outburst.
Alexander — a respected reporter who has been covering Trump since his presidential campaign — has often been one of the president’s toughest questioners, and has gotten strong pushback from Trump before. But in remarks about the exchange, aired on MSNBC after the briefing, he characterized his question to Trump as a “softball,”
“I was trying to provide the president an opportunity to reassure the millions of Americans, members of my own family and my neighbors and my community and plenty of people sitting at home, this was his opportunity to do that, to provide a positive or uplifting message,” he said.
He suggested that Trump’s response “does sort of reveal a frustration, perhaps an anxiety of his political prospects, about a situation that is hard to keep in control as we witnessed it continue to spiral at this time.”
Alexander also observed: “The bottom line is, this is a president whose experiences in life are very different than most Americans across this country right now. Not a person who likely worries about finances or had, not a person who in the course of his life is worried about his future, not a person who is worried about where to find a paycheck for his bills or for his rent and as evidenced by the president suggesting that an opportunity to provide for American some reassurance about how they should feel right now, the president instead took it out on me.”
NBC News chairman Andy Lack stood by his reporter, calling him “outstanding,” and adding, “His line of questioning at today’s White House briefing was fair, straightforward and necessary.”
Although Alexander appeared surprised by Trump’s answer during the briefing, he asked Vice President Mike Pence the same question about an hour later.
Pence’s response: “Do not be afraid. Be vigilant.”